June 20, 2014
Behind the Curtain
You have both put eyes on Lucas Giolito this season. Please describe your thoughts after seeing him, complete with scouting grades and projections.
Explanation: Giolito can shove it. His fastball velocity was sitting 93-96 mph when I saw him, with a few innings of steady 94-95. He touched 97 and 98 a few times. This is plus-plus velocity and borderline elite. Once I factored in other aspects of this pitch, it truly becomes a potential elite offering. The ball explodes out of his hand, largely due to an absolutely monstrous plane. Giolito has a tremendous frame and long arms, both of which allow the fastball to seemingly explode on delivery. His extension and plane make his fastball look faster than it really is, which is quite unfathomable considering he already touches 98 mph.
Relative to movement, the ball has natural arm-side run that will creep up on right-handed batters and explode their bats if they make contact. It was nearly impossible for any hitters on the Greenville roster to make contact on his fastball inside at the hands. His fastball has some boring action as well, but this decreases the higher he goes with velocity. Regardless, Giolito is able to consistently pump the ball 94-96 mph and hitters struggle to make sound contact unless they are guessing fastball on the pitch.
The command is what really held back this grade. Right now, it's average command and he does leave the ball up in the zone at times. It was a consistent issue against Greenville, and he did pay for it on a HR allowed to Carlos Asuaje. The main issue from the command comes from release points differing. I think this is fixable and something Giolito can easily refine down the road. I suspect with more stamina gained throughout his journey in the minors, Giolito can retain velocity at 95-96 mph and movement on a consistent rate. That alone is why I had no problem giving him a future 80 on the fastball.
Giolito loves his fastball and rightfully so. The Nationals have taken away his two-seamer, but that's okay; he doesn't need it. In terms of velocity for a starting pitcher, it is near elite. In my viewing, Giolito sat comfortably at the 93-95 range and could reach back for 96, 97 when needed, and even hit 98. Giolito gets great extension and the ball just explodes out of his hand.
In terms of movement, due to his extension and high 3/4 arm slot, Giolito creates extreme plane. It's explosive and has late, late life and bores in on RHH, making it nearly impossible to square. Giolito gave up two hits but broke three bats with just his fastball; I’ll go out on a limb and say that is pretty good. The extension and arm slot make it really difficult for both RHH and LHH because he changes the eye level of hitters by an extreme amount.
Giolito's control of the pitch was there but his command within the zone was average at best. I think this is something he can improve. Presently, he would hit to both glove and arm sides but not pinpoint his spots. I thoroughly believe with command improvement within the zone, Giolito's fastball will play to an elite level pitch. A 6-foot-6 frame, great extension and high arm slot, elite arm speed, elite starting pitcher velocity, extreme plane and arm-side life—all are contributing factors to this pitch being elite. Giolito has himself a hell of a fastball and I am comfortable saying it is an 80 grade pitch.
Explanation: I was told often how amazing Giolito's curve was. It was one of those pitches that is a “must-see." Sure, we often hear that phrase thrown around, even for pitches that are merely plus. However, Giolito's curveball isn’t just one of the best pitches I have seen this year. It might be the best pitch I have seen in a decade, especially in the minors.
Two aspects I look for in a hammer curveball are depth and the speed at which the pitcher is able to work this. Giolito's curveball sat 79-81 with deep depth and a tight spin. You know a pitch is good when it starts at the head of a hitter and ends in the middle of the plate. It has a terrific 11-to-5 break. The rotation is hard, the depth is deep and pure, and the swings against it are hilarious. Through three innings, the Greenville roster did not make contact. Many of the pitches were not strikes, and the umpire was calling them strikes. His ability to manipulate a strike zone with the pitch is extraordinary.
The release point did fluctuate at times, as he occasionally would release the pitch too late. This also affected his command, as a few bounced in the dirt. Even as an elite offering, most hitters are laying off a pitch that drops below their eye level well before crossing the plate.
Regardless, this is one of the best curveballs in the game and has potential to be one of the best strikeout offerings. With such hard rotation and the depth involved, I would be surprised if Giolito is not dominating with this pitch against even the best hitters in the majors.
Explanation: I came into the game only seeing GIFs and video of Giolito's curveball, but everyone I talked to had some sort of "Haha, Giolito did this to a guy with his curveball..." type of story. I had to see for myself. Giolito was working on his changeup that game so I saw only a handful of curveballs, but that was enough. I made a bold statement on Twitter: "Giolito's curveball is the most elite secondary pitch I have ever seen.” I stand by it.
It is a true weapon and wipeout pitch. As Tucker stated, I also look for depth and speed while also reading spin and what type of break the pitch has. For me, Giolito showed all of these traits. The velocity of the pitch was 80-83, topping out at 84, which in terms of velocity is more common for sliders than true curveballs. It showed 11-to-5 break with tight, tight spin while having a massive snapping action and hard bite. The ball looked like a fastball, then dove away from RHHs late, showing great depth in the pitch. He would back ankle LHHs and they had no chance of even checking their swings.
Giolito threw his curveball as more of a chase pitch but did show the ability to throw for a strike such as in Tucker's viewing, which is a true positive for a young pitcher. Showing this kind of break, depth and spin made me believe that Giolito's curveball could get major league hitters out right now. With a bit of command improvement of his curveball, and the rest of his arsenal, Giolito's curveball plays at an elite level for me. Not only does he show all of the traits of an elite curveball, but coming from the same arm slot as his fastball and due to fastball fear, Giolito's curveball will play elite. A Justin Verlander type secondary.
Explanation: Not everything is golden with Giolito. The change needs work, and it's currently fringe-average for me. I didn't come away loving the pitch, although he flashed a few solid-average offerings. I do like how he is able to replicate the arm speed and arm action relative to the fastball. This is important to me, and I see way too many pitchers in the minors tip their changes. This is especially the case at the lower minors, where hitters still might not have the ability or skill to pick up on the tell. However, the more experienced hitters at higher levels will. Giolito is fine in this aspect.
The release points are really where I struggled in giving a higher grade. He was all over the map in the start I saw. At times, he was releasing his change entirely too early and the ball was floating in without any fade or parachute action. It almost looked like a fastball with velocity taken off of it, sitting 83-85 mph. The command was currently fringe. At times, he did show some fade with good parachute action. This was primarily against left-handed hitters, as he was attempting to place the change on the low-and-away corner. Overall, this looks like a classic case of needing more repetition. He is still in Low-A, so it's not surprising to see a pitcher needing work on his change.
Explanation: Giolito's changeup is behind the rest of his arsenal. It is a work in progress and I received plenty of looks in my viewing. He was working on throwing it from a consistent arm slot and I think he still struggles with it. Although the arm slot did vary at times, Giolito did keep consistent arm speed and did not cheat to get to it. He was mainly working on the changeup getting the change to come back to RHHs and fade away from LHHs. I think he’ll become more comfortable doing this as he grows and gains innings.
In terms of velocity and movement, Giolito's velocity varied from 82-88 mph and showed two completely different actions. In the higher velocity band of 85-88 mph, the pitch became firm and flat and was often released too early and left up in the zone. At the lower velocity band of 82-84 mph, Giolito got downhill and the pitch flashed plus. It had easy arm-side fade with deep vertical action and was thrown to his spots. It generated more swinging strikes at this velocity, too.
I graded his changeup as presently average, but when all is said and done, I think it will play to a 65. The reasoning behind my assumption is that Giolito presently has a feel for his changeup but it is not consistent just yet. With experience, I think it will be. In terms of movement and velocity, it might only play to solid-average or plus. But the rest of his arsenal could play elite, and due to fear of his other two pitches the changeup could be the most effective pitch of all of them. It plays a full grade higher for me.
CJ Wittmann: I love Giolito's huge frame and I think he filled out quite well. He is all of 6-foot-6 with long arms and a high waist, letting him really get downhill when throwing. He is a very good athlete for how big he is and he has very good control of his limbs. He has a true dreamer's body for an innings-eating horse.
Giolito has plenty of arm strength and elite arm speed. He gets over top of his frontside and delivers from a high 3/4 arm slot, creating extreme downhill plane. Giolito uses a high leg kick but his momentum can vary when he gets out of sync. He uses a long stride toward home and keeps really good balance throughout his delivery. His hips and shoulders rotate in unison and stay closed until late, and he explodes toward home when his arm is coming through. At times, his hips would leak early and he would land toward the first base side and show some effort.
The red flags for me in Giolito's delivery were his arm stab in the back to a somewhat shorter arm action to high 3/4 slot. When reaching for extra velocity, the delivery can get violent and fast. Although he is very fluid and repeats well, his back elbow gets a bit high and it concerns me a bit since he also has TJ on his resume. I think there is reason for concern and eventually Giolito could break again.
Tucker Blair: Giolito has average command at this stage in his career. The fastball, curveball and changeup could all use refinement. Most of this derives from release points and arm slot, which are easily fixable, and Giolito is a smart guy capable of making these refinements. The fastball is currently more control, but he shows flashes of command. The curveball is more control as well, but with a curveball it is generally acceptable to not throw the pitch for strikes. He does not need plus command of the curveball, as it already provided deception to hitters and they simply cannot recognize the spin and depth of the pitch. The change will be the true indicator, as he currently lacks command and control. He will flash it, but both need refinement for him to hit the next level of his game.
Tucker Blair: Giolito is an ace if everything clicks. He has two dominant pitches and the potential for another solid-average offering. If he can tighten up the command/control and stay healthy, he can soar at the next level. The risk is truly high, but I think the mechanics are smoother than some make them out to be. I also think the arsenal could work at this very moment in the bigs, but there is no need to rush him. The Nationals are doing the right thing by leaving him in Hagerstown to build stamina and work on refinement of his change. It will benefit him in the long run as he evolves into an even more formidable pitcher. He will need the change to become more consistent to hit his ultimate ceiling, which is absurdly high—though the risk is even higher. Either way, this is one of the nastiest arsenals in the world right now.
CJ Wittmann: Lucas Giolito is truly a stud. He has the arsenal and frame to be a frontline starter at the highest level. Giolito needs improvement with his command within the strike zone and a more consistent changeup, but there is plenty of room for progress. He is only 19 and in Low-A but makes a strong case for being the top pitching prospect in all of the minors. There is not one pitcher in the minors with the potential arsenal Giolito has. There’s extreme risk here with TJ on his resume but limiting his innings and workload in 2014 could pay dividends for the future. His combination of size, strength, pitchability and arsenal is borderline unfair. Giolito is something special.
CJ Wittmann is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @CJWittJr